Learn English – What’s the difference between “null” and “void” in legal language


In the legal term "null and void," what is the difference between null and void? Why not just use one of the two terms? And can either term be used without the other?

Best Answer

I don't remember how I learned this, and I can't find a reference just now, but the peculiar custom of redundancy in our legal documents dates back to medieval England. The Norman conquest of 1066 put a French-speaking king and nobility in charge of an English-speaking people. The English courts at the time were extremely sensitive to detail and would throw out a petition for something as minor as a misspelling, so getting every detail right was crucial. Thus, lawyers developed a habit of incorporating English synonyms for key French words (or it might have been the reverse; memory fails me on that detail). This is how we get phrases like null and void and cease and desist. Since American law (except in the state of Louisiana) is based on English common law, the U.S. inherited this custom. Over time, I suspect the legal professional largely forgot exactly why it was building all this redundancy into its documents and "decided" it was as a general matter of belt-and-suspenders caution.

EDIT: I finally found a reference of sorts at Wikipedia:

David Crystal (2004) explains a stylistic influence upon English legal language. During the Medieval period lawyers used a mixture of Latin, French and English. To avoid ambiguity lawyers often offered pairs of words from different languages. Sometimes there was little ambiguity to resolve and the pairs merely gave greater emphasis, becoming a stylistic habit. This is a feature of legal style that continues to the present day. Examples of mixed language doublets are: "breaking and entering" (English/French), "fit and proper" (English/French), "lands and tenements" (English/French), "will and testament" (English/Latin). Examples of English-only doublets are: "let and hindrance", "have and hold."